Friends or Foes

Research on sibling relationships shows that siblings influence our personalities more than parents, friends and teachers do.

Parents need to coach their siblings how to get along, avoid rivalry and build positive and warm relationships. 

My sister is five years older than me. When I was a baby, she was blamed for every bump I had on her watch. Throughout our school years we constantly fought, with my parents always siding with me (“she is a baby!”). But when I turned 14, Iris and I became best friends, which we still are. During those turbulent years in our history, especially when our arguments seemed completely out of control, I often wondered why our parents waited for so long to have me. “There is nothing in common between us,” I told myself, “How are we ever going to get along?”

Psychologists call siblings the only ‘true partners’ for life. Brothers and sisters steer one another into or away from risky behaviours; they teach each other how to resolve problems, conduct friendships; they act as each other’s protective buffer against family upheavals. At best times they are an inseparable entity, at worst, they are each other’s sworn enemies. Every parent wants their children to have a warm and close relationship. But there isn’t much guidance on what to do to make that happen, and most sibling interaction happens when we’re not around.

Many parents give the age gap a lot of thought when planning a family. We wish the children to be close in age so that they play together and relate easily. We space them out further so that we can offer them individual attention and give ourselves a chance to cope with the workload. Which is better?

Looking across various cultures there are often common patterns for a family structure. It seems that in the UK parents prefer to have children born close to each other. Many of our mums believe that the shorter the age gap is, the more likely the siblings will play together and behave like friends. In Italy, families with two or more children have a much bigger age gap, of three years and more. In a number of Eastern European countries many families have a four-five, even seven-year gap between their children. Perhaps these differences are influenced by the length of maternity leave in each state and the provision of childcare, but the variations suggest that different spacings can all work reasonably well for both children and parents.

Sibling relationships have elicited a lot of research over the past 15 years. The most compelling fact that comes out from recent research is the quantity of time siblings spend together and the power this has on teaching children social skills.

By the time children turn 11, they spend about a third of their time with their siblings, more time than they devote to their friends, teachers or even parents. And unlike friendships, sibling relationships are non-elective; despite all the differences in character and temperament and all the clashes that they go through, siblings manage to make up at the end of the day and return to sleep in the same bunk beds in the same shared room. Researchers say that friendly and positive sibling relationships are associated with all kinds of positive adjustment in adult life, including peer acceptance, social competence, academic success and good mental health.

Meanwhile, negative sibling relationships are strongly linked to aggressive and anti-social behaviours, including substance use.

Every child spends a lot of energy on getting their parents’ attention. Naturally, they look to their brothers and sisters to learn how to be more effective at doing so. Younger sibling mimic the skills of older ones, older siblings tempt to undertake a new thing every time their younger sister or brother has already been seen to try it. Psychologists call this process modelling. Modelling entails anything from copying a few character traits to delinquent behaviours and substance abuse. If the older sibling has a strong, influential yet warm personality he is much more likely to be copied by his younger brother or sister. According to a paper published in the Journal of Drug Issues, substance use by older siblings has a greater effect on younger siblings’ tobacco and alcohol use compared to parental use.

More complex, and possibly more intriguing, is a phenomenon psychologists call de-identification. De-identification is when children don’t mirror but instead differentiate from their siblings. In these cases siblings wish to carve out a different path in which to excel (be it a field of study, or sport, or even abstinence from smoking and alcohol). This relieves them from the pressure of being compared to or measured against the traits and skills of their elder sibling.

By having a second child parents often believe that they will give a companion for their first-born, which should make their parenting easier. In reality, however, many brothers and sisters spend much of their time locked in conflict. Recent observational research documents that sibling conflicts arise at a rate of up to 8 times per hour. According to Susan McHale, Director of the Social Science Research Institute and Professor of Human Development at Penn State University, sibling relationship problems are the number one reason children have arguments or conflicts with their parents.

Until recently, most parenting resources told parents that any sibling interaction tends to have a fair degree of fighting and playing nicely together and that parents need to be aware that friendly behaviour and animosity between their siblings will alternate. McHale and her colleagues take a different approach. “Parents should make it clear that sibling conflict is unacceptable and that they are eager for their children to have warm and close relationships,” says Professor McHale.

Parents who are available to listen to and help their siblings resolve issues can have a tremendously positive effect on their siblings relationships. For example, by setting up strategies that teach children how to see one another’s point of view, how to compromise, they show their children that they don’t just expect them to get along, but they are there to lead them by the hand. On the opposite, evidence demonstrates that low levels of parental involvement and monitoring is linked to sibling conflict and parental negativity. “Research on ‘normative beliefs’ demonstrates that when youth believe that certain kinds of behaviours are common, they will use those norms to gauge their own behaviours, so if sibling conflict is seen as normal, that’s what children will strive for,” explains Professor McHale.

Most sibling relationships pass the conflict phase only close to adolescence. Differences across cultures suggest that there is no single ideal gap, but parents can help a lot by being attentive to sibling interactions. With a small age gap, siblings need nearly constant parental coaching helping them resolve issues and develop emotionally, particularly in the earlier years. With a bigger age gap, parents must be sensitive to both modelling and de-identification and have to work harder to help children relate to one another and build warm enduring relationships. But most of all, it’s worth remembering that the sibling bond is as significant as the parent-child relationship itself. By motivating siblings to feel part of a team, by providing them with tools to discuss and resolve problems, we can help them on their way.